Following the last meeting of the College of Bishops to consider the next steps in the Living in Love and Faith process, it was reported that there was general agreement that simply restating the existing ban on same-sex marriages or blessings in church was not an option.
Sadly, I agree. It will not be enough merely to restate the ban. Clearly there are large numbers of people in the church, in General Synod, and even in the College of Bishops, who will need to have the biblical and theological basis of the ban explained to them. They will need what the Living in Love and Faith resources have consistently failed to provide: teaching about the historic, orthodox position of the church, as evidenced in Scripture, and outlined in the formularies of the Church of England itself.
This is what we must be praying for the bishops next week. Out of that meeting will come whatever proposals are to be brought to Synod in February. This won't be the final form of any motion with all the legal i's dotted and t's crossed. It is most likely to be a series of exploratory motions, testing the mind of Synod, seeing what they might be able to get through and what will cause most outcry. We have a strong evangelical presence at Synod, especially in the House of Laity, but also in the House of Clergy. It is unlikely that any motion requiring a two-thirds majority would pass.
But we should be praying for more than that. A blocking minority in Synod is a good thing. A far better thing would be bishops who take seriously their calling to build up the church:
"So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ." Ephesians 4:11-13
That is what all pastors are for, and it is certainly what bishops should be for: to build up the body of Christ so that we all reach unity and knowledge and maturity. It is not their role to simply listen to what (a tiny minority of) the church thinks and reflect that back. It is not their role to listen to what the unbelieving world thinks and adopt the same position in the church. It is their role to equip us, to teach us, to bring us to unity and knowledge and maturity.
And yet it is shocking how little theology has been done in this whole process. Bishop Stephen Croft's recent publication, Together in Love and Faith, is a good example of this. The chapter on 'The Case for Change' includes sections on 'Listening to the Pain', 'Faithful, stable, long-term same-sex relationships', 'Our culture's moral view of the Church's present policy', and a concluding section on the changes he wishes to see: blessing of same-sex relationships; freedom for clergy to have whatever relationship they want, and to be able to enter same-sex civil marriage; and same-sex church marriage. Despite an occasional Bible reference, this is not a biblical or theological case. Croft's argument is based on experience and secular culture. The following chapter does ask whether these changes would be consistent with Scripture, but note that this is a secondary question, not part of his case for making the change. His approach to Scripture is, therefore:
"...all of my pastoral instincts point to finding a way of interpreting the Scriptures that allows for greater love and support, tolerance and the blessing of [LGBTQ+] partnerships, even where this interpretation seems, at first sight, to be in conflict with some of the obvious interpretations of key biblical passages" (p27-28).
Here's what will happen if the Church of England adopts Croft's changes: she will have her lampstand removed. She will have adopted a false gospel in which sin is no longer sin and need not be repented of. She will divide, she will crumble and she will fall. Christ will continue to build his church, but the Church of England will no longer be his church because she will no longer be teaching his gospel. Is this the option the bishops want to bring to the table?
Croft also raises the possibility of differentiation or division with separate episcopal or even provincial provision for those who can't accept the changes he wants. Kind of him to acknowledge that the position held by the Church of England for almost five hundred years, and the wider church for 2000 years, remains valid. This kind of half-way house offers some advantages, but the fundamental issue remains that this would be a church with two different gospels. That is, two churches. It is hard to see how any organisation could thrive with this level of division and tension within it, let alone the church which is supposed to be growing into unity. Is this the option the bishops want to bring to the table?
Sticking to the status quo will not be easy, but I can't see any options which are easy. If Living in Love and Faith has shown us anything, it is that the Church of England is already divided. There is no compromise solution. There has been no progress towards common ground. Whatever the outcome of next week's College of Bishops' meeting and February's General Synod, the best we can hope for will be chaos and confusion, disunity and despair. There's no point holding out for an easy option, so there's nothing to lose by going for the good option.
So let us pray that our bishops will hold firm to the teaching of the Bible, the doctrine of the Church of England, the historic orthodox position of the worldwide church. Let us pray that they will indeed restate the current position, but that they will do much more than that. Let us pray that they commit to fulfilling their responsibility to build up the church, by teaching God's word. Let us pray that they set an example in doing faithful theology for the benefit of the church.
Thomas Cranmer's strategy when faced with a biblically illiterate and theologically unstable church was to produce written homilies, so that the people would receive sound teaching even when their minister was unable to give it. Perhaps what we need is a new book of modern homilies, ordered to be read in all the churches, which would teach people to know what sin is and how to repent of it, to understand the glorious romance of the gospel and their part within it, to recognise that Christians are all called to live in costly obedience to Christ, even when the world hates us, and to show that the Bible is the gracious, sufficient and clear word of God.
Some people will hate it. Some will certainly leave. We are not in the sixteenth century and no one will be burned at the stake. But the church will be Christ's church, and we can trust him to keep building it.